Jasmine Dreame Wagner

Rewilding (Ahsahta Press, 2013)

Questions from Karen J. Weyant and Weston CutterIf you could have a soundtrack for your chapbook, what songs would be playing? Did you write this chapbook while listening to anything, or do you listen to anything when you write in general, or is it all silence?

Silence is music, but aside from this, I do often like to write with a record playing in the background — full albums — ones without lyrics. I love a great lyric, but words can be too distracting while I’m writing.

When I started writing the fragments, lines, and stanzas that eventually became Rewilding, I was listening to a lot of post-rock. In particular, Mogwai’s “Young Team,” Explosions in the Sky’s “The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place,” and Pelican’s “Australasia.” I also listened to quite a bit of Oneohtrix Point Never’s “Replica.”

I also love to write to Brahms’s solo piano music. I’m a musician and I sometimes unwind by playing the late piano studies that he wrote for Clara Schumann at the end of his life—especially the intermezzos and rhapsodies of Op. 116-118—some of which I’ve been studying and progressively learning for a long time.

John Cage’s “Six Melodies” (listen here) figure prominently in Rewilding‘s playlist. So does Chopin’s Nocturne Op.9, performed by Maria João Pires (listen here).

A question from Travis Mossotti: What do you find to be the most difficult and/or rewarding part about the writing, revising, publishing, and promotion process? 

The most rewarding moments in the process are the flashes of insight that happen when something new is forged — when the just-right word finally falls into place, or when the text finally assumes its proper shape, as though the words are something completely organic, as though the poem existed before I was there to help it along.

The other rewarding moment is, of course, hearing from a publisher that your words will be published — there’s no joy quite like it. I write slowly — so slowly, in fact — that when I do hear that something will be published, it’s a real-world affirmation of a creation I’ve probably been needling over for at least a year (if not years) and that kind of affirmation is lovely. Though I mostly write for the first example of reward: the pleasure of thought, of discovery, itself.

The most difficult part of the publishing process is definitely the promotion. There isn’t really a great way to holler about your work without coming across as pushy or repetitive on social media. It seems like the best way to promote your work is to collaborate with other poets and artists and to participate in your community, whether that’s setting up and giving readings or multimedia events or reviewing other people’s work.

A question from Curtis L. Crisler: Did your chapbook start out as something larger whose parts you made into a chapbook? Or, if it started out as self-contained, is it something that can be changed into a full manuscript? What’s your chapbook about?

I started writing Rewilding while I was a graduate student in the MFA program at the University of Montana. I was taking David Moore’s Poetics of Peace course, which was offered through the literature department but was interdisciplinary, with readings across critical theory, philosophy, and political science.

One of the most interesting works we read that semester was Johan Galtung’s Peace by Peaceful Means. I was fascinated by the connections Galtung makes between cultural violence and cosmology. He talks about how the cosmology of a civilization acts as a socio-cultural code for that civilization — a kind of DNA that not only determines how a culture will perceive reality, but carries instructions for what they will do with it. As with cosmology, cosmogony; a creation myth carries messages. If you ask someone how their universe began, the story they tell you will reveal important beliefs.

In America, the prevailing creation myth is science’s Big Bang: a seed of violence from which all things, all acts, originate. The Big Bang posits a linear progression of time with a beginning and an end. It also posits that time is constrained by the bounds of our universe, that causes and effects are sequentially linked within it, and that the eternal is only accessible after the universe’s death.

What the Big Bang as cosmology implies on a cultural level is that one’s experience of life-within-time must begin with an analogue act of violence (“the beginning” is not just the Big Bang’s explosion and the ensuing synthesis of organic matter, but Otto Rank’s concept of human birth trauma: birth experienced as so violent, so traumatic that we cannot remember it, which harkens back to Sigmund Freud’s idea of birth as original and prototype of anxiety.) In the same way we cannot know the conditions of the universe at the time of the Big Bang, we cannot remember the moment of our birth. Also: the eternal is only accessible after death, which implies either a religious afterlife or an atheist conservation of mass where bodies become soil, become grass, become energy, where energy will eventually succumb to the universe’s heat death. Although there has been much recent talk about the existence of a multiverse, the prevailing Big Bang theory posits our universe as the solo entity at the center of existence. Prime universe, singular universe: a universe at the center of its narrative.

If violence is necessary to begin, everything will begin with violence. There will be trauma, memory-loss, and aphasias. We will seek cause-and-effect-based answers for acts and events, even when acts and events defy logic. It will be natural, not solipsistic, for us to posit ourselves at (and to compete for, even) the center of narratives.

Galtung questions whether or not there is a therapy for a culture crippled by a pathological cosmology, a creation myth that enables harmful systems to emerge. I began writing Rewilding in list form, crafting “an accounting of the disappeared” — a collection of things ignored, forgotten, or destroyed by a capitalist society. The earliest draft was a 13 page list entitled “A Brief History of Ash.” I wanted to name these things, and in naming them, integrate them. I wanted to consider the methods that art could use to address (confess? witness?) the Big Bang’s seed of violence and to name the ways it influences how we perceive, think, and act. I wanted to investigate how a culture might use art and poetry and graffiti as therapy to heal from the trauma of structural and physical violence.

While I was composing, revising, and structuring Rewilding, I was thinking about linearity, continuity, and narrative, how a continuous plainspoken narrative can be a vehicle for empathy (at best) and propaganda (at worst.) This is true, too, for the list form, which is pure hierarchy. (Top 10 X about X.) Ultimately, Rewilding segues between forms in order to disrupt form’s stance, to break systems as they’re established and to allow new forms to grow in the cracks. (Rewilding is the return of a habitat to its natural state after human influence has abandoned it. Rewilding is also the deliberate release of a species into the wild. It is also the name of a racehorse who, pushed too hard, ran to its death.)

I was also thinking about Wittgenstein (“the limits of my language mean the limits of my world”) and Nietzsche (“where the domain of words ceased, so did the domain of existence”) and what it might be like to exist in a world that consisted solely of the things that we’ve destroyed, exiled, or forgotten.

What are some chapbook presses you admire and why?

Caketrain Journal and Press is the first that comes to mind, not just because they published my chapbook Listening for Earthquakes, but because their chapbooks are beautifully designed and printed. Caketrain publishes fiction, poetry, and everything in between.

NAP Magazine published my next chapbook, True CrimeI like NAP’s stylishly designed echaps. Good poems, good design. Nice people.

I also admire Ugly Duckling Presse, Poor Claudia, Argos Books, Diagram/New Michigan Press, and any poet who creates their own chapbooks by hand (these are sometimes the best.)

What are some of your favorite chapbooks? How did they influence your writing or your desire to make a chapbook of your own?

My very favorite chapbook of all time is Enter Morris Imposternak, Pursued by Ironies by Eugene Ostashevsky, published by Ugly Duckling Presse. I have a copy of the letterpressed edition, which I carry around with me, not always literally, and which is sadly out of print. Thankfully, the folks at Ugly Duckling have made a pdf version available here.

I also loved G.C. Waldrep’s The Batteries, published by New Michigan Press. I first read this long poem in The Georgia Review and was completely stunned by its ambition and scope. A beautiful read, if you can get your hands on it in its original form (I think the chapbook is out of print, but the Georgia Review should still have back copies of the issue that featured it.)

What’s the oldest part of your chapbook? Or can you name one part that inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?

I think the oldest line in Rewilding is either: “where men with flashlights cut like swordfish / through midnight in a frost-flecked minefield” or “moths bore holes in its pink cardigan, / need’s unending knit.”

Unfortunately, I don’t remember anything specific about writing these lines. I must have been at home, in bed, or possibly drinking coffee at a coffee shop in a snowstorm.

When did you realize you were working toward a chapbook?

I don’t think I realized that Rewilding, the long poem, was a chapbook until I reached 48 pages and just felt… satisfied. I had been working on the poem off and on for so long (several years at that point) and finally reached a limit. The words felt like they were in the right places with the right rhythms. The poem felt musical. It felt like a song. Of course, I could have kept writing it — Rewilding is a long abecedarian poem that essentially functions as catalogue or encyclopedia. And there can always be more entries in a catalogue or an encyclopedia. But I reached a point in time where I was living at The Wassaic Project (an artist residency and community in Wassaic, New York) and felt finished. I went to the residency with the desire to finish, and I did. The feeling was all I needed. The intuition.

Did you submit your chapbook to contests, open reading periods, or both?

I only submitted Rewilding to one contest, the Ahsahta Press chapbook contest, and was fortunate that Cathy Park Hong liked my work enough to select it for publication. Listening for Earthquakes was the first runner-up in the Caketrain chapbook contest, selected by Rosmarie Waldrop. If I remember correctly, I’d sent out various versions and lengths of the Earthquakes book to several contests and was occasionally listed as a finalist. True Crime I submitted to Nap’s open reading period. I’m a firm believer in blind-read poetry contests and blind-read open reading periods.

To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?

Rewilding‘s cover image is a photograph by Dana Maiden, a photographer and installation artist living in Los Angeles. Dana and I went to college together at Columbia. We met in a class called Logic and Rhetoric, and if I remember correctly, our first “collaborative effort” was a presentation on the schematics of the library. Shortly before Listening for Earthquakes was accepted for publication, I visited Dana’s studio in Highland Park and fell in love with the new work she’d been creating. I didn’t know if or when I’d publish anything, but I did know that I wanted her work on the cover. Fortunately, both Caketrain and Ahsahta were open to using Dana’s images. The covers of both Rewilding and Listening for Earthquakes are from her Margins & Rocks series.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a chapbook-length poem called “Ask,” which is about Twitter, Anonymous, and Ask.fm. I’m also working on a series of lyric hybrid essays concerning noise and silence, photographs of suns and sunsets, and minimalist and conceptual artworks. It’s tentatively called “The Water Centaur.”

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Jasmine Dreame Wagner is the author of Rewilding (Ahsahta Press, 2013) and Listening for Earthquakes (Caketrain, 2012.) Her poems have appeared in American Letters & Commentary, Colorado Review, New American Writing, Seattle Review, Verse, and in The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral (Ahsahta Press, 2012.) A graduate of Columbia University and the University of Montana, Jasmine has received grants and fellowships from the Connecticut Office of the Arts, Foundation for Contemporary Arts, and The Wassaic Project. Her full-length book, Rings, was selected by Elizabeth Robinson for the Kelsey St. Press Firsts! Contest and will be published in 2014.

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